Cooke's No-Contact Sport
By Howard Kurtz
The Redskins have thrown The Washington Post for a loss.
Crying foul about the paper's coverage, the team's top executives, from owner Jack Kent Cooke to General Manager Charley Casserly to Coach Norv Turner, have refused to grant interviews to Post reporters for nearly six months. One result is that the Washington Times recently beat The Post on two big stories, the announcement of new contracts for Casserly and Turner.
Cooke has told the paper's editors he is unhappy about coverage of his plans to build a new stadium in Prince George's County. He is especially furious about an editorial last May that mocked his decision to call the site of the stadium Raljon, a combination of the first parts of the names of his two sons.
"The Washington Post has posed the question: Why don't you speak to our news staff?" Cooke said by telephone. His reply, he said, "is simple: My business."
He added, "Except for me, the entire Redskins organization speaks with all media, including The Washington Post. I honor many of my writer friends on The Post. I enjoy being with them."
Cooke indicated that other Redskins executives boycotting The Post are voluntarily following his lead. He declined to be quoted on his dissatisfaction with the paper's coverage, although he keeps a copy of the offending editorial close at hand. The editorial called Raljon, which would include an exclusive Postal Service Zip code, a "ridiculously elitist enclave" and "yet another example of Mr. Cooke's famous ego in action." Cooke complained about the piece to Post Publisher Donald Graham.
Other Redskins executives have told Post editors they adopted the no-contact rule in part because of the paper's decision to regularly cover the Baltimore Ravens, the National Football League team that debuted last season. The Skins see this as cutting into their market.
"It's unfair to The Washington Post and its readers for the Redskins to respond so dramatically to a newspaper's decision to cover another team," said George Solomon, the paper's assistant managing editor for sports. He said the Ravens are newsworthy because many Post readers follow the team.
As for the boycott's impact, Solomon, who has complained to NFL officials, said: "We're operating with an arm and a leg tied behind our back. . . . You could say I'm whining because we got beat on two stories. You bet."
Casserly said he has declined to talk to The Post "at times" but that he has done the same with other newspapers. He would not discuss the reasons but said he has been extremely "cooperative" with the press.
Redskins spokesman Mike McCall said that top executives are "very accessible" but that they make their own decisions about granting one-on-one interviews.
It's hardly unusual for a sports team and a local news organization to find themselves at odds. Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Flyers sued radio station WIP-AM, which carries their games, after a talk show host said one player missed a game because he had a hangover. But such disputes are usually patched up after a week or two because each side needs the other.
Post reporters say that some Redskins officials run from them in the hallways and that Cooke has cursed them while griping about the paper's coverage. Cooke and others have occasionally spoken off the record with Post staffers but, with rare exceptions, have stuck to the no-interview rule.
"People are told not to talk to you," said Post reporter Richard Justice, who covers the team. "They've told you that they're told not to talk to you. It makes the simplest things a hurdle."
Cooke's move is all the more remarkable because, as owner of the Los Angeles Daily News, he is in the newspaper business himself.
The new policy began last October. While players were not affected, the coach, general manager and owner have generally refused to talk to Post staffers, except for answering questions at news conferences.
Asked what he hopes to accomplish, Cooke said: "I'm not interested in fighting The Washington Post. I'm interested in getting this stadium built for the opening game of the 1997 season." He questioned the need for the paper to cover the contretemps over access, likening The Post to "a thwarted suitor bellyaching to the public."